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Frankenstein Diesel! Cummins 1966 Caprice Burnout Machine!

John Machaqueiro Dec 19, 2017
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In 1966, Cliff and Elaine Friel walked into Harrington Motors in Harrington, Delaware to purchase their first new car. As a recently married couple in the booming 1960s, it's what young couples did: they purchased a home in the suburbs, a new car, and started a family. At that point in time, society had a different relationship with the car and it was easily viewed as a measure of prosperity and social status. So much so that in 1966, Chevrolet spun the Caprice away from the Impala model to create its own distinct line, which came with a higher level of exterior trim, and a more luxurious interior. That fact didn't go unnoticed in the Friel household, and when it came time to make that new car purchase, Cliff (being a die-hard Chevy guy) was well aware of the different luxury levels being offered across the Chevrolet line.

The Friel's left the dealership that day the proud owners of a new two-door Caprice Coupe decked out in Marina Blue with a blue cloth interior. Between the fenders was Chevy's mighty 327 cubic-inch small-block with a four-barrel carburetor, backed by a Powerglide transmission and a 3.08:1 posi rear. It was purchased as daily transportation and it faithfully fulfilled that task well into the mid '70s, when it was eventually replaced by an Olds Delta 88. Cliff's mother-in-law was in need of a newer car, so the Caprice was sold to her, and she used it until 1983 when it was then passed on to Cliff's son, Mike Friel.

Mike was 15 at the time and had grandiose plans for the Caprice, but he was still months away from getting his driver's license. In terms of its overall condition at the time, Mike recalls, "It had a bunch of scratches in it, and it had a dent in the fender which is still there from when my grandmother ran into the garage with it, and it had rust behind the rear wheels, which is still there to this day as well." The original 327 was still in the car, but he did what most teens with a penchant for grease did in the mid '80s, which was to slap on a set of headers, jack up the rear with air shocks, swap the wheels, and add a cassette player. "I also started sanding it down and doing dumb teenager bodywork on it to get it ready for paint," he notes. The dents received a generous layer of Bondo and the entire body was blasted with gray primer right out of a rattle can, but when you're 15 with 30 years' worth of experience and you run out of money, those small details just don't seem to matter.

008 1966 Caprice Diesel Front Right 2/61

The Caprice entered service when he turned 16. With his license under his belt, the car once again became daily transportation. While Mike was thrilled with the fruits of his efforts, a watchful eye had been soaking in all the changes made to the car. Let's just say that Cliff was not amused. That growing displeasure lasted for about six months, until he couldn't take it anymore. Mike recalls Cliff telling him point blank, "You're destroying my car. I want it back." And take it back he did. To his credit, Cliff didn't leave him carless. The Caprice was replaced with a '77 El Camino.

With the car back in his possession, Cliff backed it into a small steel barn until he could get to it to undo Mike's changes and fix it back up. As you can probably guess, that never happened. It took until 2006 for Mike to convince his father that he was never going to do anything with the car, and he should just cut loose with it and give it back to him. Unfortunately, after two decades parked on a dirt floor in a building with no door, and aided by that layer of porous rattle can primer, Mother Nature had inflicted its vengeance on every part of the car.

Now older, Mike had other ideas on what he wanted to do to the Caprice. "I got the 327 running again," he explains. "I did the brake lines and the bushings, and took care of everything underneath. The Powerglide that was in it was toast, so instead of fixing it, I converted it to a four-speed. I changed the ignition out to an HEI system and replaced the carburetor. After many years, I was back in business with that original engine." That lasted for about a year, and after the addition of a set of Corvette C5 wheels, the decision was made to take it to the next level. He had his sights set on a big-block, which he started to build for the Caprice. That sidelined the car for a number of years, and in 2012, a warmed up '93 Cummins diesel drivetrain from a Dodge Ram pickup came into the picture.

1966 Chevy Caprice Cummins Diesel 10 3/61

After the suspension work, the car saw limited use and at the start of 2016 Mike pulled the drivetrain back out. Since the 5.9L is a torque monster and its installation was rushed, a more permanent solution was needed. With the Caprice parked in his home garage, he cut out the floor and built a 2x3-inch mild-steel subframe in the center of the car to stiffen the chassis. A roll cage was also incorporated to add additional stiffness, and a new floor, transmission tunnel, and a recessed firewall were fashioned from bare steel sheets. Like the rest of the interior, the stock vinyl seats had also seen better days, so they were tossed in favor of a set of NRG Innovations RSC-208 racing seats up front, and a pair of Kirkey racing seats in the rear. Mike also installed an ididit steering column, a Tanida Motor Sports steering wheel, and an Auto Rod Controls flat touch panel. The C5 rolling stock was also upgraded to C7 Z06 specs. The front wheels measure 19x10 and are wrapped in Bridgestone Potenza RE050A 305/30ZR19 tires. The rear set measure 20x12 and wear Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 335/25ZR20 tires.

010 1966 Caprice Diesel Interior Rear 4/61

With the stiffened chassis, his confidence level at keeping the body in one piece from the twist meant that he could go looking for additional power from the 5.9. While it didn't get a full rebuild, he did swap out the fuel pin and the governor spring to bump up the rpm. He also advanced the timing on the injection pump and changed the fueling rate. The end result was an increase to 353 horses at 3,000 rpm, and a stout 798 lb-ft of torque. As an insurance policy, the 46RH transmission was also given a full rebuild.

Future upgrades for the Caprice are usually destined as winter projects. On the horizon is the addition of a Vintage Air system, digital dash, and stereo system. The Cummins will also be moved back to improve weight distribution and some of the interior sheet metal work will be finalized. Some of the rust around the glass also needs repair and the roof will probably get a fresh coat of rattle can primer to match the rest of the body. In its tattered old age, Cliff has accepted his car's fate and often comments on how it gets better mileage now than it ever did. And it clearly does better burnouts!

021 1966 Caprice Diesel Rear Left 5/61
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